While it is true that the Indonesian constitution does not outlaw Shiite Islam, a superficial look at the matter can be deceptive. Indonesia’s state doctrine Pancasila acknowledges six faiths and pledges to treat these faiths equally: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

Such a promise of egalitarianism has helped to put the label “secular” on Pancasila and the country has traditionally been associated with religious pluralism and tolerance.

The results of a recent survey by the Indonesian Setera Institute are of interest as they suggest majority support for keeping up the status quo in religious affairs. Asked whether difference in religion was a benchmark for choosing one’s friends, 81.5 percent of the respondents said that it wasn’t; 88 percent opined that religion was a private matter and needed no government interference.

At the same time, 49 percent of respondents said they “cannot accept nonreligious people.” 60.9 percent held that they “cannot accept” beliefs except the six “official religions” acknowledged by the state doctrine Pancasila.

The results suggest that a majority of Indonesians want the government to pursue a conservative approach toward religious matters, presumably as it would avoid controversy.

Islamist groups in Indonesia have a long history of putting pressure on authorities to ban Islamic groups they deem “deviant” and thus outside Pancasila. Shiites were once a prominent target, but in recent years, attention has shifted to the Islamic Ahmadiyah sect. Ahmadiyah is a religious movement founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in Punjab, India, in 1889.

Like mainstream Islam, Ahmadiyah teachings are based on the Quran and the Hadith (accounts of the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad). Ahmadis, too, observe the five pillars of Islam: the belief in a single creator and Muhammad’s prophethood, the five daily prayers, alms, fasting and — in theory — the pilgrimage (Ahmadis are banned from visiting Mecca in Saudi Arabia).

A common demand is that Ahmadis should be forbidden from referring to themselves as Muslims. The main reason to perceive Ahmadiyah as a distinctive faith outside Islam is the claim that the group perceived its founder as being a prophet. A second claim is that the movement had its own holy book, named Tadzkirah. A third is that Ahmadiyah had its own holy sites in the Punjabi towns of Qadiyan and Rabwah (unlike mainstream Muslims’ Mecca and Medina).

The crux is that these accusations are shared by many Muslims and most leaders of mainstream Muslim organizations. Nearly 61 percent of respondents in the Setera survey said they “could not accept Ahmadiyah.”

On the question of what the government should do about Ahmadiyah, 45.5 percent said “disband” it, and 20.7 percent said “limit its expansion.” Only 6.1 percent opted for “protecting” it.

In mid-2008, the Yudhoyono government issued a decree that left the legal status of Ahmadiyah unresolved. It banned Ahmadiyah from missionary activities but not from internal activities, thus leaving its members in a legal limbo. The decree gave proof of the government’s determination to please broader Muslim constituencies while trying to uphold some appearance of full religious freedom.

Throughout 2010, Islamist groups have carried out raids against Ahmadiyah properties, most of them in West Java. The government follows the particular logic that mainstream Muslims were threatened by Ahmadiyah’s existence. Officials like to argue that Ahmadiyah mosques should be closed in order to forestall “anarchic activities” by local Muslims, thereby taking pre-emptive actions against the victims rather than the aggressors.

The police’s task is to protect citizens regardless of their religious orientation but by giving the impression of protecting Ahmadiyah, they face the danger of being labeled as being pro-Ahmadiyah and thus anti-Islam.

In sum, Islamist civil society groups have enjoyed a disproportional influence on the Yudhoyono government. Indonesia claims to be a secular state but the government has repeatedly intervened in religious and social affairs. It has yielded to Islamist pressure because of concern of a backlash by broader Muslim electorates who share the Islamists’ support of the government’s conservative stance on religious affairs.

The deeper cause for the problems of the Ahmadis and other nonconformist religious groups are Indonesia’s constitution which is selective, and its laws which are ambiguous in its promise of religious freedom.

Indonesia is often seen as the prime example for a moderate Islam yet most Muslim leaders from mainstream Muslim organizations tend to be firm in supporting those laws inimical to the legal recognition of Ahmadiyah and other religious movements and thus to full religious freedom.

Bernhard Platzdasch is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies, Singapore

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.